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Joseph in the technicolor dream factory

( -- It was ironically fitting that Joseph Lieberman should make his convention acceptance speech after the penultimate episode of "Survivor" -- exactly the sort of amoral pop-culture threat to public values that Lieberman has made a career in the Senate of attacking, and a show that, no doubt, whupped him in the ratings several times over.

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"Survivor" is a simulation of reality manipulated to produce conflict; a political convention is a simulation of reality manipulated to produce harmony. Guess which wins? If the Dems had a true media genius on the payroll, they'd have locked Joe in a Studio City bungalow with 24 cameras and Maxine Waters.

It was even more fitting, if a touch sad, that he should appear on the Democratic podium, in L.A., on the same night as did Jimmy Smits, an actor best known for baring his soul and, un-Liebermanically, his rear end, on "NYPD Blue."

Oh, and Smits was preceded at the mike by Robert Rubin, arguably the single member of the Clinton administration most identified with the economic prosperity that the Democrats are relying on to win Gore-Lieberman the election. Guess which one got the hearty welcome? That's right, while the distracted delegates seized Rubin's few minutes as a chance to check out the plumbing at the Staples Center, the crowd went bananas over Smits' political wisdom.

Oh, Joe; poor Joe. A prophet is not without honor save at his own convention. But then the Democrats have a complicated relationship with the entertainment community at this convention, having taken a Hollywood-bashing tack in the backyard of the folks who not only bankroll their campaigns but, through the "Man From Hope" video, helped craft the public image of the President, who's looking more attractive with every day that Al Gore spends in the spotlight.

Yet for a party with such close ties to Hollywood, their efforts at adding TV gloss to their stage show have been strictly public-access cable. For instance: If you didn't watch C-SPAN, you were spared the spectacle, but someone convinced the Dems it would be all telegenic and Elizabeth Dole-y to conduct "American Dialogues" -- little faux talk shows in between speeches.

Thus last night, Sen. Jay Rockefeller had the humiliating task of carrying a handheld mike and asking health-care questions of "average Americans" onstage, who gave canned, halting responses that they seemed to be trying to read off his blinking eyelids. I've seen more convincing, spontaneous-seeming banter on juice-machine infomercials.

Even in the devil's own medium, however, it was Joe Lieberman's night Wednesday, and the beneficiaries of the First Amendment gave a generally warm reception to the man who has essentially promised that if TV doesn't clean itself up, the government will do the job for it. On ABC, former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos -- who we're sure has become an entirely impartial observer in the, what, three minutes he's been a journalist -- notified us that the Gore camp is thrilled with the bump Lieberman has given the campaign, which evidently is noticeable everywhere but in the polls. Larry King gushingly congratulated Lieberman's mother, Marcia (who looks fantastic at 85) signing off, "Shalom." (Joseph Lieberman -- here's an interesting bit of political trivia -- is apparently of the Jewish faith.)

Lieberman, perhaps under coaching from the top of the ticket, pretty much laid off the Hayes Code recitations tonight. It was interesting, however, that his one culture-war declaration -- "No parent in America should be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children!" -- came immediately after he declared that he and Al Gore would maintain the U.S. armed forces as the strongest fighting machine on the planet. Interesting, because that military statement was a Cold War holdover, the kind of line Democrats long felt obligated to crow for fear of being labeled commies. The army, after all, was what stood between us and the Russkies, what ensured America's dominance of the world.

But one could argue that what keeps America the world's only superpower today -- especially economically -- is precisely the same vulgar culture that Lieberman reviles. Crappy American movies imprint the American consciousness across every continent; millions of little Elians the world over go to bed and dream of Lara Croft; French kids with an entire national tradition of great cinema are instead obsessed with "South Park" (Eric Cartman's face is more ubiquitous in the French countryside than bitter, entitled-feeling farmers). America doesn't dominate the world because it fears us; we dominate because the rest of the world wants to be us.

Nobody has said it in L.A. this week, but someday some politician will build a campaign around this: that the Joe Liebermans, Tipper Gores and Bill Bennetts of the world, who want to clean up popular culture -- and you can't sanitize it without sapping its vitality -- are advocating the post-Cold War equivalent of melting down our tanks. MTV! Love it or leave it!

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


Thursday, August 17, 2000


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